June 2013 Issue of Wines & Vines

ASEV to Honor Jim Wolpert

Well-liked UC Davis viticulturist to receive Merit Award

by Andrew Adams
    Rootstocks and tannins are topics for symposia

    In addition to the Rootstock Symposium, this year’s annual meeting of the American Society for Enology and Viticulture will include a Tannin Symposium organized by Jim Harbertson of Washington State University and Jim Kennedy of California State University, Fresno.

    The symposium will take place from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on June 28. After an overview of tannin chemistry, the symposium will feature a panel discussion of winemakers and growers who will discuss practical steps for managing tannins in the vineyard and the winery.

    Scheduled speakers include Keren Bindon of the Australian Wine Research Institute, Veronique Cheynier of the Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique in France, Uli Fischer of the Center for Wine Research in Germany and Andrew Waterhouse with the University of California, Davis.

    Speakers from the private sector include Ridge Vineyards winemaker Eric Baugher; Michael Cleary, director of wine chemistry with E. & J. Gallo; Tom Collins, research and development with Treasury Wine Estates; and Russell Smithyman, director of vineyards at St. Michelle Wine Estates.

    On June 28, a panel of experts including Deborah Golino, director of Foundation Plant Services at UC Davis, will discuss the emerging threat of red blotch disease, which curtails a vine’s ability to accumulate sugar. The condition has been found in vineyards throughout the United States and is now known to be associated with a specific virus, but researchers are still stumped as to how the disease spreads. Jim Wolpert and Mike Anderson were the first to identify the disease at the Oakville station in Napa Valley in 2008.

    A new “flash talks” session will also take place June 26. Students with noteworthy research posters will each have four minutes to discuss their work.

    For a full conference schedule and more information on session topics, visit asev.org.
In a remote corner of Mendocino County, Calif., Glenn McGourty and Jim Wolpert found themselves sitting at a picnic table outside an old farmhouse. The two University of California viticulturists were scouting historic vineyards and looking for clean vine cuttings for a “heritage vineyard” that Wolpert wanted to plant.

McGourty recalls the two were lunch guests of the property owner, an old Italian-American farmer whose family had planted the vines a generation ago. On a search to discover cuttings to preserve California’s most unique wine grape selections, the two were not served a rare vintage from the farmer’s property, but instead glasses of the farmer’s favorite wine, an inexpensive industrial plonk, over ice.

“We were sitting around this table with this wine and Jim says to the farmer, ‘Oh this is really, really quite refreshing on a day like today,’” McGourty recalls with a laugh. “It was more a vacation sometimes when we were out there in the field, rather than work.”

Friends and colleagues say that Wolpert, 63, who recently retired from the University of California, Davis, has a unique skill for connecting and communicating with nearly anyone. This trait served him well both as a researcher and while he was chair of the Department of Viticulture and Enology facilitating multi-million-dollar donations from the likes of Robert Mondavi.

Wolpert also had to call on his communication skills when he led the task force to study the phylloxera outbreaks in California’s North Coast during the 1980s that ultimately led to UC Davis rescinding its recommendation of AxR1 rootstock because of a new phylloxera biotype.

Wolpert connected well with growers at a personal level, as McGourty observed in Mendocino County, traveling across the state of California checking on rootstock trials and seeking out vines for the Zinfandel Heritage Vineyard at the Oakville research center in Napa Valley. “One of the things that really struck me was his skill in communication with the growers and the people we came into contact with,” said Mike Anderson, who managed Wolpert’s research lab for 15 years.

Anderson and Wolpert drove to nearly every corner of California’s wine grape growing regions to conduct rootstock trials. While traveling with Wolpert, Anderson said he gained more respect for him as an academic and, “Spending so many hours and days driving with him was a treasure. He’s a really good friend.”

Wolpert grew up in Indiana and received a bachelor’s degree from Purdue University in 1973. He earned his master’s and doctorate degrees from Michigan State University. He came to UC Davis in 1983 to do research on pistachio trees as a postdoctoral scholar in the Pomology Department. Two years later, he joined the Department of Viticulture and Enology as a viticulture extension specialist focused on evaluating rootstocks and clones.

ASEV Merit Award
Rootstock research was a cornerstone of Wolpert’s career. He helped organize the Rootstock Symposium that will kick off this year’s annual meeting of the American Society for Enology and Viticulture.

Wolpert, fellow UC Davis researcher Andrew Walker and Nick Dokoozlian, a research viticulturist with E. & J. Gallo Winery in Modesto, Calif., brought together experts from Australia, Italy, Michigan and Washington state to discuss how rootstocks affect vine performance, breeding and how rootstock can resist pest and disease pressure.

This year’s ASEV National Conference takes place June 24-28 in Monterey, Calif., at the Portola Hotel and Monterey Conference Center. In addition to the rootstock symposium, described by ASEV as a tribute to Wolpert, the Davis researcher will also receive the group’s annual Merit Award. Wolpert is expected to discuss the role of the university extension service in the modern wine grape industry during his acceptance speech at 9 a.m. on June 27. A reception in Wolpert’s honor is planned for later that day.

“He has basically done so much of what we do as SOP in the world of viticulture and the wine industry. I don’t think a lot of people realize that,” said Lise Asimont, an ASEV vice president and the director of grower relations for Francis Ford Coppola Winery in Geyserville, Calif.

Wolpert has been undergoing ongoing medical treatment but is expected to attend the conference in June. In 2012, Wolpert received the outstanding achievement award from the ASEV-Eastern Section.

Stan Howell, a professor emeritus of viticulture and enology at Michigan State University, said the places Wolpert has been invited to speak underscore the breadth and impact of his research. Wolpert has lectured at major industry events in every significant grape-producing state in the United States as well as at conferences in Canada, Germany, Italy, Mexico, New Zealand and Spain.

Wolpert studied under Howell as a master’s and doctoral candidate researching cold hardiness in Concord grapes. Howell said Wolpert contributed a great deal to the department and the state’s industry with his work. He had the tact to listen to different opinions but politely counter with research or facts that backed up his side of the debate. “No one would ever be upset when he called them,” Howell said. “As his professor, I was thankful he made me avoid being embarrassed.”

Howell said that deft ability to handle conflicting viewpoints and personalities helped Wolpert during his 10-year tenure as chair of the UC Davis Viticulture and Enology Department. “You can’t work with someone like Jim for a long time without him having a personal and professional impact,” he said.

During his time in Michigan, Wolpert helped improve the quality of Niagara juice grapes, studied frost damage protection and helped begin research into what at the time were new varieties such as Vignoles and Vidal Blanc.

Rootstock research
In California, Wolpert helped lead the team of UC Davis researchers who in the mid-1980s were tasked with determining why some vineyards in the North Coast area were suffering outbreaks of phylloxera even though they had been planted with AxR1 rootstock. AxR1 previously had resisted phylloxera damage in California, though it was known to be potentially susceptible.

Wolpert, Walker and other scientists from UC Davis determined the outbreaks were due to a new type of phylloxera called Biotype B. Ultimately, Wolpert had to make the difficult announcement that Davis could no longer recommend that growers plant AxR1 rootstock.

That change triggered the last major replanting of California’s vineyards. Two decades later, growers are again replanting those acres, and often with rootstocks studied by Wolpert. Anderson said he and Wolpert compiled 10 years of data on the performance of rootstocks and how rootstock selections could affect production and ripening of different scion varieties.

By drawing on that information, Anderson said growers in California can make much more informed choices when picking the best rootstock for their scion variety and site. “That’s a huge legacy, that’s a huge pile of data,” he said.

One project Wolpert worked on in the early 2000s was a clonal selection trial for sparkling wine he performed with the winemaking staff at Gloria Ferrer Caves & Vineyards in Sonoma, Calif. “Jim was great to work with during our Pinot Noir clonal studies,” said Bob Iantosca, the executive winemaker.

Wolpert worked with Sonoma County extension advisor Rhonda Smith to develop a trial block at the winery to find the clones best suited for the estate. Iantosca said the trial yielded successful, tangible results that led to another trial a few years later with clones imported from Champagne, France. “With the understanding gained from this research, there are better sparkling wines being produced—and still wines. This work would not have happened without help and direction provided by Jim.”

Wolpert also worked with extension viticulturist Amand Kasimatis to establish the Zinfandel Heritage Vineyard at the Oakville research station. Wolpert, Kasimatis and other extension viticulturists scoured California’s oldest vineyards looking for disease-free Zinfandel cuttings.

The team ultimately found 90 selections from vineyards planted before World War II. Wolpert and his team grafted the vines onto St. George rootstock and used head training to mimic the methods used by pioneering farmers of the 19th century. By using a uniform methodology, Wolpert was able to analyze the vines on specific parameters such as cluster weight, berry size and cluster tightness to identify genetic traits and isolate pure clones. In 2009, UC Davis’ Foundation Plant Services released 19 selections to nurseries that came from the heritage vineyard.

Zinfandel Advocates & Producers, ZAP, has donated more than $400,000 to support the vineyard, and each year a member winemaker makes wine with fruit harvested from the heritage vineyard. Chris Leamy, winemaker at Terra d’Oro winery in the Sierra Nevada foothills, made wine from the 2012 crop.

Bob Biale is the co-owner of Robert Biale Vineyards in Napa, Calif., and the current president of the ZAP board of directors. He said Wolpert demonstrated the importance of capturing clonal material and the industry will “always be grateful for that.”

He said Wolpert’s work with the heritage vineyard helped the industry by offering wineries a wider selection of Zinfandel clones, from high-yield workhorses to those that fit a boutique winery. “He has broadened this whole palette. Now we’re going to have so many deeper flavors and different flavors.” 

Wolpert is also known for his work at the Kearney Agricultural Research and Extension Center in California’s Central Valley, where he studied alternative varieties from warm-weather regions. In work now being overseen by associate viticulture specialist Matthew Fidelibus, 55 grape varieties from warm regions in Europe are being evaluated for use in the hot Central Valley.

Wolpert and McGourty organized a symposium on alternative varieties for last year’s ASEV conference in Portland, Ore.

Bridging the private public gap
When Wolpert became department chair at Davis in 1996, the school had a ramshackle teaching winery with second-rate equipment. Because conditions were so poor, the school’s faculty didn’t want to waste quality grapes by making wine with them. Students instead used “junk grapes,” as Wolpert called them in a news article from the time, to make wine that ultimately went down the drain. The wine quality was suspect, and the school had no bond under which to sell the wine, something rival California State University, Fresno, had and still has.

Using his skill as a communicator and industry connections, Wolpert put a personable face on the UC Davis program and helped convince donors to contribute to the school’s capital campaign. Today, the campus is home to a cutting-edge and bonded learning winery that has better equipment than many commercial operations in California.

A major chunk of the funding came from Robert Mondavi, who donated $25 million toward the wine program. “Robert Mondavi is the greatest thing since sliced bread,” Wolpert told the Wine Spectator at the time. “Not only is he generous but he’s a nice guy.”

Despite his success as department chair, Wolpert announced he would be leaving the role in 2003 to return to research, saying, “I thought I smelled smoke when I realized it was the burning of bridges to my research projects.” He was soon back in the job at the request of the university, however, to “pitch a few more innings” and help finish the fundraising efforts before leaving in 2006.

Mark Greenspan, the founder of Advanced Viticulture Inc., serves on the ASEV board of directors. He said Wolpert helped motivate him to pursue a career in wine. Greenspan grew to know Wolpert more while working in the same lab as Anderson.

The two stayed in contact professionally after Greenspan left UC Davis and Wolpert became department chair. Greenspan said he was impressed by how Wolpert was able to connect the university with the industry. “In a way, growers are a pretty tough bunch to please. They’re very skeptical of the effectiveness of the university,” he said.

Greenspan thought Wolpert was most successful in demonstrating to the industry that UC Davis was making the investment to improve its facilities through securing significant donations.

McGourty said Wolpert proved to be an excellent representative for California’s wine industry. He also said Wolpert earned the respect of his colleagues in Europe for his knowledge and engaging personality. “He truly was a great ambassador for us when he’d go to international meetings or host international guests,” he said. “People were always glad to see him.”

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